Carl Friedrich Gauss

Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss
Carl Friedrich Gauss, painted by Christian Albrecht Jensen
Born 30 April, 1777
Brunswick, Germany
Died 23 February, 1855
Göttingen, Hanover, Germany
Residence Flag of Germany.svg Germany
Nationality Flag of Germany.svg German
Fields Mathematician and physicist
Institutions Georg-August University
Alma mater Helmstedt University
Doctoral advisor Johann Friedrich Pfaff
Doctoral students

Friedrich Bessel
Christoph Gudermann
Christian Ludwig Gerling
J. W. Richard Dedekind
Johann Encke
Johann Listing

Bernhard Riemann
Known for Number theory
The Gaussian

Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss (30 April 1777 – 23 February 1855) was a German mathematician who contributed significantly to many fields, including number theory, algebra, statistics, analysis, differential geometry, geodesy, geophysics, mechanics, electrostatics, astronomy, matrix theory, and optics.

Sometimes referred to as the Princeps mathematicorum (Latin, "the foremost of mathematicians") and "greatest mathematician since antiquity", Gauss had an exceptional influence in many fields of mathematics and science and is ranked as one of history's most influential mathematicians.

Personal life

Early years

Gauss Statue
Statue of Gauss at his birthplace, Brunswick

Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss was born on 30 April 1777 in Brunswick (Braunschweig), in the Duchy of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (now part of Lower Saxony, Germany), as the son of poor working-class parents. His mother was illiterate and never recorded the date of his birth, remembering only that he had been born on a Wednesday, eight days before the Feast of the Ascension, which itself occurs 39 days after Easter. Gauss later solved this puzzle about his birthdate in the context of finding the date of Easter, deriving methods to compute the date in both past and future years. He was christened and confirmed in a church near the school he attended as a child.

Gauss was a child prodigy. A contested story relates that, when he was eight, he figured out how to add up all the numbers from 1 to 100. There are many other anecdotes about his precocity while a toddler, and he made his first ground-breaking mathematical discoveries while still a teenager. He completed Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, his magnum opus, in 1798 at the age of 21, although it was not published until 1801. This work was fundamental in consolidating number theory as a discipline and has shaped the field to the present day.

Gauss's intellectual abilities attracted the attention of the Duke of Brunswick, who sent him to the Collegium Carolinum (now Braunschweig University of Technology), which he attended from 1792 to 1795, and to the University of Göttingen from 1795 to 1798. While at university, Gauss independently rediscovered several important theorems. His breakthrough occurred in 1796 when he showed that a regular polygon can be constructed by compass and straightedge if and only if the number of sides is the product of distinct Fermat primes and a power of 2. This was a major discovery in an important field of mathematics; construction problems had occupied mathematicians since the days of the Ancient Greeks, and the discovery ultimately led Gauss to choose mathematics instead of philology as a career. Gauss was so pleased by this result that he requested that a regular heptadecagon be inscribed on his tombstone. The stonemason declined, stating that the difficult construction would essentially look like a circle.

The year 1796 was most productive for both Gauss and number theory. He discovered a construction of the heptadecagon on 30 March. He further advanced modular arithmetic, greatly simplifying manipulations in number theory. On 8 April he became the first to prove the quadratic reciprocity law. This remarkably general law allows mathematicians to determine the solvability of any quadratic equation in modular arithmetic. The prime number theorem, conjectured on 31 May, gives a good understanding of how the prime numbers are distributed among the integers.

Gauss also discovered that every positive integer is representable as a sum of at most three triangular numbers on 10 July and then jotted down in his diary the note: "ΕΥΡΗΚΑ! num = Δ + Δ' + Δ". On 1 October he published a result on the number of solutions of polynomials with coefficients in finite fields, which 150 years later led to the Weil conjectures.

Later years and death

Grave of Gauss at Albani Cemetery in Göttingen, Germany.

In 1831 Gauss developed a fruitful collaboration with the physics professor Wilhelm Weber, leading to new knowledge in magnetism (including finding a representation for the unit of magnetism in terms of mass, charge, and time) and the discovery of Kirchhoff's circuit laws in electricity. It was during this time that he formulated his namesake law. They constructed the first electromechanical telegraph in 1833, which connected the observatory with the institute for physics in Göttingen. Gauss ordered a magnetic observatory to be built in the garden of the observatory, and with Weber founded the "Magnetischer Verein" (magnetic club in German), which supported measurements of Earth's magnetic field in many regions of the world. He developed a method of measuring the horizontal intensity of the magnetic field which was in use well into the second half of the 20th century, and worked out the mathematical theory for separating the inner and outer (magnetospheric) sources of Earth's magnetic field.

In 1840, Gauss published his influential Dioptrische Untersuchungen, in which he gave the first systematic analysis on the formation of images under a paraxial approximation (Gaussian optics). Among his results, Gauss showed that under a paraxial approximation an optical system can be characterized by its cardinal points and he derived the Gaussian lens formula.

In 1845, he became associated member of the Royal Institute of the Netherlands; when that became the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1851, he joined as a foreign member.

In 1854, Gauss selected the topic for Bernhard Riemann's Habilitationvortrag, Über die Hypothesen, welche der Geometrie zu Grunde liegen. On the way home from Riemann's lecture, Weber reported that Gauss was full of praise and excitement.

Gauss died in Göttingen, (then Kingdom of Hanover and now Lower Saxony) on 23 February 1855 and is interred in the Albani Cemetery there. Two individuals gave eulogies at his funeral: Gauss's son-in-law Heinrich Ewald and Wolfgang Sartorius von Waltershausen, who was Gauss's close friend and biographer. His brain was preserved and was studied by Rudolf Wagner who found its mass to be 1,492 grams (slightly above average) and the cerebral area equal to 219,588 square millimeters (340.362 square inches). Highly developed convolutions were also found, which in the early 20th century were suggested as the explanation of his genius.

Religious views

Gauss was a Lutheran Protestant, a member of the St. Albans Evangelical Lutheran church in Göttingen. Potential evidence that Gauss believed in God comes from his response after solving a problem that had previously defeated him: "Finally, two days ago, I succeeded— not on account of my hard efforts, but by the grace of the Lord." One of his biographers G. Waldo Dunnington describes Gauss's religious views in these terms:

For him science was the means of exposing the immortal nucleus of the human soul. In the days of his full strength it furnished him recreation and, by the prospects which it opened up to him, gave consolation. Toward the end of his life it brought him confidence. Gauss' God was not a cold and distant figment of metaphysics, nor a distorted caricature of embittered theology. To man is not vouchsafed that fullness of knowledge which would warrant his arrogantly holding that his blurred vision is the full light and that there can be none other which might report truth as does his. For Gauss, not he who mumbles his creed, but he who lives it, is accepted. He believed that a life worthily spent here on earth is the best, the only, preparation for heaven. Religion is not a question of literature, but of life. God's revelation is continuous, not contained in tablets of stone or sacred parchment. A book is inspired when it inspires. The unshakeable idea of personal continuance after death, the firm belief in a last regulator of things, in an eternal, just, omniscient, omnipotent God, formed the basis of his religious life, which harmonized completely with his scientific research.

Apart from his correspondence, there are not many known details about Gauss' personal creed. Many biographers of Gauss disagree with his religious stance, with Bühler and others considering him a deist with very unorthodox views, while Dunnington (though admitting that Gauss did not believe literally in all Christian dogmas and that it is unknown what he believed on most doctrinal and confessional questions) points out that he was, at least, a nominal Lutheran.

In connection to this, there is a record of a conversation between Rudolf Wagner and Gauss, in which they discussed William Whewell's book Of the Plurality of Worlds. In this work, Whewell had discarded the possibility of existing life in other planets, on the basis of theological arguments, but this was a position with which both Wagner and Gauss disagreed. Later Wagner explained that he did not fully believe in the Bible, though he confessed that he "envied" those who were able to easily believe. This later led them to discuss the topic of faith, and in some other religious remarks, Gauss said that he had been more influenced by theologians like Lutheran minister Paul Gerhardt than by Moses. Other religious influences included Wilhelm Braubach, Johann Peter Süssmilch, and the New Testament.

Dunnington further elaborates on Gauss's religious views by writing:

Gauss' religious consciousness was based on an insatiable thirst for truth and a deep feeling of justice extending to intellectual as well as material goods. He conceived spiritual life in the whole universe as a great system of law penetrated by eternal truth, and from this source he gained the firm confidence that death does not end all.

Gauss declared he firmly believed in the afterlife, and saw spirituality as something essentially important for human beings. He was quoted stating: "The world would be nonsense, the whole creation an absurdity without immortality," and for this statement he was severely criticized by the atheist Eugen Dühring who judged him as a narrow superstitious man.

Though he was not a church-goer, Gauss strongly upheld religious tolerance, believing "that one is not justified in disturbing another's religious belief, in which they find consolation for earthly sorrows in time of trouble." When his son Eugene announced that he wanted to become a Christian missionary, Gauss approved of this, saying that regardless of the problems within religious organizations, missionary work was "a highly honorable" task.


Therese Gauss
Gauss's daughter Therese (1816–1864)

Gauss's personal life was overshadowed by the early death of his first wife, Johanna Osthoff, in 1809, soon followed by the death of one child, Louis. Gauss plunged into a depression from which he never fully recovered. He married again, to Johanna's best friend, Friederica Wilhelmine Waldeck, commonly known as Minna. When his second wife died in 1831 after a long illness, one of his daughters, Therese, took over the household and cared for Gauss for the rest of his life. His mother lived in his house from 1817 until her death in 1839.

Gauss had six children. With Johanna (1780–1809), his children were Joseph (1806–1873), Wilhelmina (1808–1846) and Louis (1809–1810). With Minna Waldeck he also had three children: Eugene (1811–1896), Wilhelm (1813–1879) and Therese (1816–1864). Eugene shared a good measure of Gauss's talent in languages and computation. Therese kept house for Gauss until his death, after which she married.

Gauss eventually had conflicts with his sons. He did not want any of his sons to enter mathematics or science for "fear of lowering the family name", as he believed none of them would surpass his own achievements. Gauss wanted Eugene to become a lawyer, but Eugene wanted to study languages. They had an argument over a party Eugene held, which Gauss refused to pay for. The son left in anger and, in about 1832, emigrated to the United States, where he was quite successful. While working for the American Fur Company in the Midwest, he learned the Sioux language. Later, he moved to Missouri and became a successful businessman. Wilhelm also moved to America in 1837 and settled in Missouri, starting as a farmer and later becoming wealthy in the shoe business in St. Louis. It took many years for Eugene's success to counteract his reputation among Gauss's friends and colleagues. See also the letter from Robert Gauss to Felix Klein on 3 September 1912.


Carl Gauss was an ardent perfectionist and a hard worker. He was never a prolific writer, refusing to publish work which he did not consider complete and above criticism. This was in keeping with his personal motto pauca sed matura ("few, but ripe"). His personal diaries indicate that he had made several important mathematical discoveries years or decades before his contemporaries published them. Mathematical historian Eric Temple Bell said that if Gauss had published all of his discoveries in a timely manner, he would have advanced mathematics by fifty years.

Though he did take in a few students, Gauss was known to dislike teaching. It is said that he attended only a single scientific conference, which was in Berlin in 1828. However, several of his students became influential mathematicians, among them Richard Dedekind and Bernhard Riemann.

On Gauss's recommendation, Friedrich Bessel was awarded an honorary doctor degree from Göttingen in March 1811. Around that time, the two men engaged in an epistolary correspondence. However, when they met in person in 1825, they quarrelled; the details are not known.

Before she died, Sophie Germain was recommended by Gauss to receive her honorary degree; she never received it.

Gauss usually declined to present the intuition behind his often very elegant proofs—he preferred them to appear "out of thin air" and erased all traces of how he discovered them. This is justified, if unsatisfactorily, by Gauss in his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, where he states that all analysis (i.e., the paths one travelled to reach the solution of a problem) must be suppressed for sake of brevity.

Gauss supported the monarchy and opposed Napoleon, whom he saw as an outgrowth of revolution.

Careers and achievements


Title page of Gauss's Disquisitiones Arithmeticae

In his 1799 doctorate in absentia, A new proof of the theorem that every integral rational algebraic function of one variable can be resolved into real factors of the first or second degree, Gauss proved the fundamental theorem of algebra which states that every non-constant single-variable polynomial with complex coefficients has at least one complex root. Mathematicians including Jean le Rond d'Alembert had produced false proofs before him, and Gauss's dissertation contains a critique of d'Alembert's work. Ironically, by today's standard, Gauss's own attempt is not acceptable, owing to implicit use of the Jordan curve theorem. However, he subsequently produced three other proofs, the last one in 1849 being generally rigorous. His attempts clarified the concept of complex numbers considerably along the way.

Gauss also made important contributions to number theory with his 1801 book Disquisitiones Arithmeticae (Latin, Arithmetical Investigations), which, among other things, introduced the symbol for congruence and used it in a clean presentation of modular arithmetic, contained the first two proofs of the law of quadratic reciprocity, developed the theories of binary and ternary quadratic forms, stated the class number problem for them, and showed that a regular heptadecagon (17-sided polygon) can be constructed with straightedge and compass.


Bendixen - Carl Friedrich Gauß, 1828
Gauss's portrait published in Astronomische Nachrichten 1828

In the same year, Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the dwarf planet Ceres. Piazzi could only track Ceres for somewhat more than a month, following it for three degrees across the night sky. Then it disappeared temporarily behind the glare of the Sun. Several months later, when Ceres should have reappeared, Piazzi could not locate it: the mathematical tools of the time were not able to extrapolate a position from such a scant amount of data—three degrees represent less than 1% of the total orbit.

Gauss, who was 24 at the time, heard about the problem and tackled it. After three months of intense work, he predicted a position for Ceres in December 1801—just about a year after its first sighting—and this turned out to be accurate within a half-degree when it was rediscovered by Franz Xaver von Zach on 31 December at Gotha, and one day later by Heinrich Olbers in Bremen.

Gauss's method involved determining a conic section in space, given one focus (the Sun) and the conic's intersection with three given lines (lines of sight from the Earth, which is itself moving on an ellipse, to the planet) and given the time it takes the planet to traverse the arcs determined by these lines (from which the lengths of the arcs can be calculated by Kepler's Second Law). This problem leads to an equation of the eighth degree, of which one solution, the Earth's orbit, is known. The solution sought is then separated from the remaining six based on physical conditions. In this work Gauss used comprehensive approximation methods which he created for that purpose.

One such method was the fast Fourier transform. While this method is traditionally attributed to a 1965 paper by J. W. Cooley and J. W. Tukey, Gauss developed it as a trigonometric interpolation method. His paper, Theoria Interpolationis Methodo Nova Tractata, was only published posthumously in Volume 3 of his collected works. This paper predates the first presentation by Joseph Fourier on the subject in 1807.

Zach noted that "without the intelligent work and calculations of Doctor Gauss we might not have found Ceres again". Though Gauss had up to that point been financially supported by his stipend from the Duke, he doubted the security of this arrangement, and also did not believe pure mathematics to be important enough to deserve support. Thus he sought a position in astronomy, and in 1807 was appointed Professor of Astronomy and Director of the astronomical observatory in Göttingen, a post he held for the remainder of his life.

Normal Distribution PDF
Four Gaussian distributions in statistics

The discovery of Ceres led Gauss to his work on a theory of the motion of planetoids disturbed by large planets, eventually published in 1809 as Theoria motus corporum coelestium in sectionibus conicis solem ambientum (Theory of motion of the celestial bodies moving in conic sections around the Sun). In the process, he so streamlined the cumbersome mathematics of 18th century orbital prediction that his work remains a cornerstone of astronomical computation. It introduced the Gaussian gravitational constant, and contained an influential treatment of the method of least squares, a procedure used in all sciences to this day to minimize the impact of measurement error.

Gauss proved the method under the assumption of normally distributed errors (see Gauss–Markov theorem; see also Gaussian). The method had been described earlier by Adrien-Marie Legendre in 1805, but Gauss claimed that he had been using it since 1794 or 1795. In the history of statistics, this disagreement is called the "priority dispute over the discovery of the method of least squares."

Geodetic survey

Gauß-Stein Garlste
Geodetic survey stone in Garlste (now Garlstedt)

In 1818 Gauss, putting his calculation skills to practical use, carried out a geodetic survey of the Kingdom of Hanover, linking up with previous Danish surveys. To aid the survey, Gauss invented the heliotrope, an instrument that uses a mirror to reflect sunlight over great distances, to measure positions.

Non-Euclidean geometries

Gauss also claimed to have discovered the possibility of non-Euclidean geometries but never published it. This discovery was a major paradigm shift in mathematics, as it freed mathematicians from the mistaken belief that Euclid's axioms were the only way to make geometry consistent and non-contradictory.

Research on these geometries led to, among other things, Einstein's theory of general relativity, which describes the universe as non-Euclidean. His friend Farkas Wolfgang Bolyai with whom Gauss had sworn "brotherhood and the banner of truth" as a student, had tried in vain for many years to prove the parallel postulate from Euclid's other axioms of geometry.

Bolyai's son, János Bolyai, discovered non-Euclidean geometry in 1829; his work was published in 1832. After seeing it, Gauss wrote to Farkas Bolyai: "To praise it would amount to praising myself. For the entire content of the work ... coincides almost exactly with my own meditations which have occupied my mind for the past thirty or thirty-five years."

This unproved statement put a strain on his relationship with Bolyai who thought that Gauss was "stealing" his idea.

Letters from Gauss years before 1829 reveal him obscurely discussing the problem of parallel lines. Waldo Dunnington, a biographer of Gauss, argues in Gauss, Titan of Science that Gauss was in fact in full possession of non-Euclidean geometry long before it was published by Bolyai, but that he refused to publish any of it because of his fear of controversy.

Theorema Egregium

The geodetic survey of Hanover, which required Gauss to spend summers traveling on horseback for a decade, fueled Gauss's interest in differential geometry and topology, fields of mathematics dealing with curves and surfaces. Among other things he came up with the notion of Gaussian curvature. This led in 1828 to an important theorem, the Theorema Egregium (remarkable theorem), establishing an important property of the notion of curvature. Informally, the theorem says that the curvature of a surface can be determined entirely by measuring angles and distances on the surface.

That is, curvature does not depend on how the surface might be embedded in 3-dimensional space or 2-dimensional space.

In 1821, he was made a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Gauss was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1822.

Appraisal of Gauss

The British mathematician Henry John Stephen Smith (1826–1883) gave the following appraisal of Gauss: If we except the great name of Newton it is probable that no mathematicians of any age or country have ever surpassed Gauss in the combination of an abundant fertility of invention with an absolute rigorousness in demonstration, which the ancient Greeks themselves might have envied. It may seem paradoxical, but it is probably nevertheless true that it is precisely the efforts after logical perfection of form which has rendered the writings of Gauss open to the charge of obscurity and unnecessary difficulty. Gauss says more than once that, for brevity, he gives only the synthesis, and suppresses the analysis of his propositions. If, on the other hand, we turn to a memoir of Euler's, there is a sort of free and luxuriant gracefulness about the whole performance, which tells of the quiet pleasure which Euler must have taken in each step of his work. It is not the least of Gauss' claims to the admiration of mathematicians, that, while fully penetrated with a sense of the vastness of the science, he exacted the utmost rigorousness in every part of it, never passed over a difficulty, as if it did not exist, and never accepted a theorem as true beyond the limits within which it could actually be demonstrated.


There are several stories of his early genius. According to one, his gifts became very apparent at the age of three when he corrected, mentally and without fault in his calculations, an error his father had made on paper while calculating finances.

Another story has it that in primary school after the young Gauss misbehaved, his teacher, J.G. Büttner, gave him a task: add a list of integers in arithmetic progression; as the story is most often told, these were the numbers from 1 to 100. The young Gauss reputedly produced the correct answer within seconds, to the astonishment of his teacher and his assistant Martin Bartels.

Gauss's presumed method was to realize that pairwise addition of terms from opposite ends of the list yielded identical intermediate sums: 1 + 100 = 101, 2 + 99 = 101, 3 + 98 = 101, and so on, for a total sum of 50 × 101 = 5050. However, the details of the story are at best uncertain (see for discussion of the original Wolfgang Sartorius von Waltershausen source and the changes in other versions); some authors, such as Joseph Rotman in his book A first course in Abstract Algebra, question whether it ever happened.

According to Isaac Asimov, Gauss was once interrupted in the middle of a problem and told that his wife was dying. He is purported to have said, "Tell her to wait a moment till I'm done." This anecdote is briefly discussed in G. Waldo Dunnington's Gauss, Titan of Science where it is suggested that it is an apocryphal story.

He referred to mathematics as "the queen of sciences" and supposedly once espoused a belief in the necessity of immediately understanding Euler's identity as a benchmark pursuant to becoming a first-class mathematician.


10 DM Serie4 Vorderseite
German 10-Deutsche Mark Banknote (1993; discontinued) featuring Gauss
Stamps of Germany (DDR) 1977, MiNr 2215
Gauss (aged about 26) on East German stamp produced in 1977. Next to him: heptadecagon, compass and straightedge.

From 1989 through 2001, Gauss's portrait, a normal distribution curve and some prominent Göttingen buildings were featured on the German ten-mark banknote. The reverse featured the approach for Hanover. Germany has also issued three postage stamps honoring Gauss. One (no. 725) appeared in 1955 on the hundredth anniversary of his death; two others, nos. 1246 and 1811, in 1977, the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Daniel Kehlmann's 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt, translated into English as Measuring the World (2006), explores Gauss's life and work through a lens of historical fiction, contrasting them with those of the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt. A film version directed by Detlev Buck was released in 2012.

In 2007 a bust of Gauss was placed in the Walhalla temple.

Things named in honor of Gauss include:

  • The Normal Distribution, Gaussian statistics (the bell curve)
  • Gauss's Theorem, The Divergence Theorem
  • The Gauss Prize, one of the highest honors in mathematics
  • Gauss's Law and Gauss's law for magnetism, two of Maxwell's four equations.
  • Degaussing, the process of eliminating a magnetic field
  • The CGS unit for magnetic field was named gauss in his honour
  • The crater Gauss on the Moon
  • Asteroid 1001 Gaussia
  • The ship Gauss, used in the Gauss expedition to the Antarctic
  • Gaussberg, an extinct volcano discovered by the above-mentioned expedition
  • Gauss Tower, an observation tower in Dransfeld, Germany
  • In Canadian junior high schools, an annual national mathematics competition (Gauss Mathematics Competition) administered by the Centre for Education in Mathematics and Computing is named in honour of Gauss
  • In University of California, Santa Cruz, in Crown College, a dormitory building is named after him
  • The Gauss Haus, an NMR center at the University of Utah
  • The Carl-Friedrich-Gauß School for Mathematics, Computer Science, Business Administration, Economics, and Social Sciences of Braunschweig University of Technology
  • The Gauss Building at the University of Idaho (College of Engineering)
  • The Carl-Friedrich-Gauss Gymnasium (a school for grades 5–13) in Worms, Germany
  • The 'Gauss House', a common room in the University of Sussex Mathematical and Physical Sciences department.

In 1929 the Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski, who helped to solve the German Enigma cipher machine in December 1932, began studying actuarial statistics at Göttingen. At the request of his Poznań University professor, Zdzisław Krygowski, on arriving at Göttingen Rejewski laid flowers on Gauss's grave.

Related pages


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